Monday, April 20, 2009

Defending the Indefensible

Friday, April 17, 2009

People will go to great, sometimes absurd lengths to defend that which they hold dear, when it is under attack. In response to last week’s San Francisco Board of Supervisors resolution commending restaurants that have stopped serving foie gras, determined foodies have rushed to the defense of the right to consume the excessively-priced, fattened, and diseased liver of force-fed ducks and geese. In a Wednesday column in the San Francisco Chronicle entitled “In Praise of Foie Gras,” Caille Millner attempts not only to defend the indefensible, but to glorify what is arguably the cruelest delicacy known to man. By wildly distorting the reality of foie gras, Millner puts a happy face on profound suffering.

Millner’s piece made my blood boil. Thanks to her skewed claims, thousands of restaurant-goers won’t think twice the next time they see foie gras on the menu. But there's reason for hope. Beyond its superficial claims, Millner's article signals just how out of touch with public opinion anyone who defends foie gras is these days. Millner resorts to patently clumsy and contrived arguments (see below). Clearly, she is on the defensive. Her painting of the anti-foie gras crusade as a raging fad, and her community of foie gras foodie enthusiasts as noble yet misunderstood guardians of a sacred right – lone voices of reason in a sea of confusion – signals just how unpopular foie gras is these days. The desperation of her plea is a testament to the success of the anti-foie gras campaign and more broadly to the fact that, as Nicholas Kristof put it in the New York Times last week, “animal rights are now firmly on the mainstream ethical agenda.”

But Millner is undeterred. She closes on a note of triumph, “Commend away, San Francisco. I'll be just across the city lines, eating without guilt.” What she fails to note is that quite soon, crossing city lines won’t be enough. Thanks to a bill signed by Governor Schwarzenegger in 2004, the sale and production of foie gras will be banned in California in 2012.

See you in Nevada, Caille.

Thankfully, Millner’s claims are not hard to refute. She uses lines of reasoning and rhetorical devices that are nearly universal in defenses of animal cruelty. I think it’s instructive to flesh these out and consider how we can best respond.

Tactic: Crying anthropomorphism
Her claim: “Most people are prone to anthropomorphize, so they imagine how horrible it would be to have a tube shoved down their own throat (ducks do not have voice boxes or gag reflexes; they breathe through their tongues) and agree that it's a horrible process that must be stopped.”
Why it works: Crying anthropomorphism always scores points. The suggestion is that those who care about animal suffering have fallen prey to childish sentimentality. It lends an air of scientific credibility to those opposing animal rights and suggests that empathy is irrational.
Response: For starters, her claim that geese lack a gag reflex is questionable. The Scientific Committee on Animal Health and Animal Welfare (SCAHAW), the EU’s most authoritative scientific body on farm animal welfare, reported that “the oropharyngeal area is particularly sensitive and is physiologically adapted to perform a gag reflex in order to prevent fluids entering the trachea. Force feeding will have to overcome this reflex and hence the birds may initially find this distressing and injury may result.” But this is beside the point, because the inherent and undeniable cruelty of foie gras is not the force-feeding itself but the resulting enlargement of the bird’s livers to 6-10 times their natural size, inducing injury, disease, and lameness. Millner makes no mention of this.

Tactic: Displacing culpability/defense by commonality
Her Claim: “The means of production for the vast majority of the country's meat supply are at least as horrifying as what it takes to produce foie gras, but it's much harder to demonize the vast majority of Americans for what they eat.”
Why it works: One of the easiest ways to excuse someone for their evils is to point out that a whole lot of other folks are doing the exact same thing or even worse things. Suddenly, it’s unfair to single out that particular evil over other equally horrible evils. Basically she is saying “all meat production is cruel so why don’t you lay off foie gras.”
Response: The claim that the farm animal rights movement is singularly focused on foie gras is absurd. The resources put into all the foie gras campaigns across the country are minuscule in comparison to those invested in Proposition 2, alone.

Tactic: Distortion and irrelevant claims
Her Claim: “Never mind that there are only three foie gras producers in the United States, all small farms that are paragons of humane treatment compared to our country's countless factory farms….All three foie gras farms in the United States use open pens for their ducks and have very low mortality rates.”
Why it works: When there isn’t supporting evidence for your case, sometimes you just have to make things up. Here, Millner exploits the common image of “small” farms as humane and idyllic.
Response: The smallness of foie gras farms and the quality of living conditions do not affect the cruelty inherent in the force-feeding process. And are the farms in this investigation video (including the three she mentions) truly “paragons of humane treatment?” The housing looks wretched. Low mortality rates (a highly subjective term that she doesn’t quantify) don’t mean much, given that the ducks are slaughtered at only 4 months of age. Moreover, one can think of plenty of forms of torture, human and animal alike, that don’t result in death.

Tactic: Framing issue as human rights vs. animal rights
Her Claim: “Never mind that so many enormous issues - climate change, obesity, health care - are tied up in our country's cheap meats, not its expensive ones. And certainly never mind that the leadership of San Francisco has far bigger things to worry about than whether or not people should be eating foie gras.”
Why it works: Animal cruelty apologists like to suggest that that human rights and animal rights are mutually exclusive. Here, Millner implies that those campaigning against foie gras are squandering time that could be spent working on more important, presumably human issues.
Response: This is not a human life vs. animal life issue. This is a relishing-in-the-fleeting-taste-of-flesh-produced-through-enormous-cruelty vs. finding-something-else-to-eat, issue. The passing of this resolution required little time on the part of the council. Furthermore, the council resolution will have an impact far beyond city limits. Since San Diego passed a similar resolution last year, other cities in Southern California have done the same. The San Fran resolution is likely to have a similar ripple effect.

Tactic: One-sided quotes
Her Claim: "We were the first farm to use a humane auditor," said Rick Bishop, animal welfare officer for Hudson Valley Foie Gras in Ferndale, N.Y. …“We've always fought misinformation by having an open-door policy at our farm. Anyone who wants to see what we're doing is welcome to visit and observe at any step of the process."
Why it works: It’s simple. Quote somebody that agrees with you and pretend that he or she is an expert.
Response: Thanks to Hudson Valley’s transparency, activists with Compassion Over Killing took up the offer for a free tour. The problem is, they caught it on tape.

Tactic: Appeal to personal investment in cruelty
Her Claim: “A dollop of foie gras is a creamy, rich flavor explosion. Prepared properly, it has wonderful texture - the word "mouthfeel" should have been invented for it - and, like wine, can have notes of flowers, citrus, nuts. I love it.”
Response: Hmmm, I guess the 15 countries that have banned foie gras weren’t aware of how yummy it tastes.

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